Saturday, April 04, 2015

Congressional Oversight Of The National Security State-- Only Patsies Like Patrick Murphy Need Apply


Just under a year ago, the House had a rare victory over a U.S. spying and surveillance establishment that has no effective oversight and that has long ago run completely amok. It passed a toothless NSA "reform" bill." 51 Republicans and 70 Democrats, including Alan Grayson, of course, voted against it, but, tragically, it passed by an overwhelming 303-121. But, as I wrote at the time:
Grayson did more than just vote against the flawed bill. Miraculously, he managed to add and pass a bipartisan amendment-- the first ever to actually limit the powers of the NSA in a substantive way-- in the Science and Technology Committee that was ultimately part of the bill that passed. Grayson's bill protects encryption standards from NSA tampering. This is the letter Grayson sent his colleagues on the committee that persuaded them-- and, as you know, most are Republicans-- to pass it:
These are serious allegations. NIST [The National Institute of Standards and Technology], which falls solely under the jurisdiction of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, has been given "the mission of developing standards, guidelines, and associated methods and techniques for information systems." To violate that charge in a manner that would deliberately lessen encryption standards, and willfully diminish American citizens' and business' cyber-security, is appalling and warrants a stern response by this Committee. Many businesses, from Facebook to Google, have lamented the NSA's actions in the cyber world; and some, such as Lavabit, have consciously decided to shut their doors rather than continue to comply with the wishes of the NSA. Changes need to be made at NIST to protect its work in the encryption arena.
Until then, the NSA had been allowed to influence decisions about encryption standards. And the NSA was interested in finding ways to circumvent the standards to make it easier for them to intercept communications and data that the senders think are secure. The agency even prevailed upon NIST to publish a standard which many in the cryptography community warned had been weakened and probably contained a backdoor for easy NSA access…

That was hardly Grayson's only battle with the National Security State. At the time, he said:
The question for the American public is this: do you believe that this is the way it has to be? Do you believe that we must give up our privacy, our liberty, our autonomy-- the very essence of what makes us Americans and human beings-- in order to be safe? My answer is “no.” There is no threat to national security when I call my mother, and there is no reason for the NSA to obtain information about that call-- and every other call we make. If it were up to the NSA, there would be a camera on every street corner, and a meter by every bed. I know that it is possible to preserve both privacy and security, and it’s up to Americans to take back our privacy to make that happen. 
Yesterday, after Lee Fang's Intercept exposé about who in Congress can and can't be trusted to protect their constituents from domestic spying and National Security State overreach, Grayson told me that "the spying-industrial complex thinks that it can stick its nose into everyone else’s business, but that not even Members of Congress can find out what the spies are up to: how they are violating our laws and our Constitution, how they are wasting taxpayer money..." They're probably not looking forward to seeing him get into the Senate, not when a patsy like Patrick Murphy is the alternative.

Here's what Lee Fang reported:
Congressmen who asked about oversight of NSA mass surveillance and domestic spying in 2013 could have “compromise[d] security” and were denied the records they sought because of concerns they lacked formal government security clearance, a former member of the House Intelligence Committee says in a newly-released video.

The footage, from an August 29, 2013 town hall meeting, sheds new light on why lawmakers were denied key rulings and reports from the secret courts overseeing the National Security Agency-- even as the Obama administration and intelligence officials claimed that all NSA programs were subject to strict congressional oversight and therefore could be held accountable.

In the video, Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., then a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, discusses why Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., and Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., should not and did not receive information they sought from the committee. The committee had previously declined to explain why the information was withheld, going so far as to tell Grayson that even its discussion of his request was classified. Because the committee, like its Senate counterpart, tends to be particularly sympathetic to the intelligence community, getting information to non-committee-members like Grayson and Griffith is potentially crucial to reforming U.S. spy agencies. And in late 2013, following revelations of mass surveillance by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, there were any number of reform bills pending.

At the time, President Obama defended bulk collection of telephone metadata, claiming in a press conference that “these programs are subject to congressional oversight and congressional reauthorization and congressional debate. And if there are Members of Congress who feel differently, then they should speak up.”

Writing for The Guardian, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald pointed out that several lawmakers, including Sen. Richard Blumental, D-Conn., were unaware of the NSA’s bulk data collection efforts, and even more concerning, other lawmakers, including Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., Griffith, and Grayson were blocked from accessing oversight documents even after making multiple requests. Griffith, a Tea Party-aligned lawmaker, had requested access to FISA court orders concerning the NSA program, but was repeatedly ignored. Grayson, a progressive, faced similar treatment after requesting FISA court opinions and documents relating to the PRISM program. The House Intelligence Committee denied Grayson’s request, and later told the congressman that the committee discussion regarding his denial was classified.

...Grayson says he was ultimately denied the information about NSA surveillance activity that he sought. “The Republicans on the Intelligence Committee were unhappy that I discussed the Guardian coverage of the Snowden revelations on the floor of the House,” he says in an interview.

Grayson noted that the House Intelligence Committee maintains rules requiring lawmakers not on the committee to obtain permission from them to view classified information. “The committee has no authority to make those kinds of distinctions,” says Grayson. “They’ve created two tiers for members of Congress,” he adds. “I’m not aware of any statutory authority for such a distinction; but it’s just a power grab as members of Intelligence and I have the same constitutional authority.”

“It is a practical impossibility for members of the House of Representatives to do effective job of oversight of the intelligence community given the current structure of the House and its rules,” says Patrick Eddington, the Cato Institute’s policy analyst in Homeland Security and civil liberties. He explains that only a “tiny set of members” and staff have access to information about the NSA and other classified matters.

“Let’s remember that what Mr. Grayson and Mr. Griffith and others were seeking access to was information on programs that they were asked to cast votes on,” adds Eddington, a former senior policy advisor to Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., and a former CIA analyst. “These revelations from Mr. Snowden and potentially other sources … should have sparked the creation long ago of a Joint Congressional Investigative Committee to explore all of this stuff, and it hasn’t happened yet, and it’s just another example of the collapse of congressional oversight.”

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